History of Lesney
Leslie Smith 6th.March 1918 - 26th.May 2005
Leslie Smith OBE, co-founder of Lesney Products, died peacefully in his sleep on 26th May 2005.
He bought joy to countless millions of small ( and big ones to!) children in every country around the world. His contribution to all of us was one of delight and pleasure when receiving one of his toys. This site will always remember him and hopefully he, and other collectors like the late Ray Bush, Tony Shorten, John Clark, Steve Thwaites and many other collectors gone will be sitting side by side now, chatting Matchbox.
John 'Jack' Odell 20th.March 1920 - 7th. July 2007
John William Odell OBE, co-founder of Lesney Products
Another sad time - John William 'Jack' Odell, has passed away late last week. He was the same age as Les Smith at 87. Truly now, the end of a remarkable era in toy manufacturing. Innovators in the industry and the man who started it all by making a small brass road roller for his daughter Anne so she could take it to school for play - the only criteria being that it had to fit in a Matchbox - so the magic for millions of children was born.
By our collecting we keep this wonderful era alive as well as many fond memories from our own childhood.
"They who have gone, so we but cherish their memory, more potent, it abides with us"
A Lesney booklet
Matchbox Memories Exhibition
I will provide only a brief history here as this subject has been covered many times in various publications
It all started just after the end of WW2 when two young, demobbed men were looking for work after returning home. Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (not related) met up and decided to start their own business. They decided on die casting as Rodney was an engineer with DCMT previously. They decided to call themselves 'LESNEY' from a composite of their names and added PRODUCTS on the end as they were still unsure about what they were going to make. The company came into being on January the 19th. 1947, strange really as I was conceived around this date too and born in September of this year!!!!!
Leslie & Rodney Smith
The premises they found was an old disused public house called 'THE RIFLEMAN' based on the border of Edmonton & Tottenham in London. They made various small bits and pieces for industrial use. Around this time they met up with Jack Odell who was looking for somewhere to house his die-casting machines as he had been refused permission by the local council to use them in a residential area. He was invited to join the two Smiths and pay them a weekly rent. After making an electrical component, Jack was invited to join the company as an equal partner.
Around the Christmas period orders for industrial items dropped off due to stocktaking so a way had to be found to keep the business going in these slack periods. They turned to toys. This side of the business was the turning point for the company as they competed very well against Dinky Toys. Soon after a move was made to Shacklewell Lane in Dalston.
For the first time ever on a Matchbox related website - a photograph of the original
I must apologise to PAUL CARR as this photo was originally found by him in a photocopy from the Bass Museum book after
many years of searching and Steve Brown visited the museum to glean more info, and I am truly indebted to both of them for finding out about it.
The photo was supplied to me by Steve Brown who got it from the Bass Brewery Museum originally
Truly an amazing piece of Lesney history before your eyes and compare it to the artist's impression
above as to how everybody thought it looked - quite a few differences (or variations!!!)
Thanks to Paul a few more facts have emerged. The photograph was taken in 1935
by Bass Breweries who were doing a survey of all the public houses it was associated with.
In early 1947, Lesney were using the pub as follows
The basement/cellar housed the compressor, the ground floor was for die casting, fettling and storage and the first floor was office space and workshop combined. On reading the report from John Kendall below, this ties in very nicely.
Click on map to enlarge to see the site of Shacklewell Lane & Barrett's Grove in the circle (left). And the approximate location of the main factory at Eastway by the canal (right).
After a few early models a large Coronation Coach was planned for the forthcoming Festival of Britain. But work on this project was almost immediately stopped by the outbreak of the Korean war and the embargo on zinc's use for toys. Rodney Smith decided to leave the company as he could see no future in it and sold his third share to Leslie and Jack. King George V1 died in February 1952 and soon after the war in Korea ended. With the embargo on zinc lifted and the forthcoming Coronation they saw a chance to recoup some of the money invested in the previous coach. Around 30,000 of these were sold and the miniature version sold well over a million. This gave them the capital they needed to expand.
One day Jack was asked by his daughter if he could make a small toy to fit in a matchbox as this was all they were allowed at school. He made her a small brass road roller and it was a great hit with all her friends who all wanted one. This was the inspiration to manufacture smaller affordable children's toys. They were sold through a toy factor called 'MOKO' after Moses Khonstam and the rest is history.
The Yesteryear range came about as Jack Odell wanted to make better castings with more detail and the small models were considered crude by him. The name of Yesteryears was used as it was to reflect the older steam vehicles which he loved. The series was launched at the UK Toy Fair in 1956 on the MOKO stand.
Some pictures from a publicity booklet by Lesney
issued to visitors to the factory.
'The Lesney Story'
First Lesney Employee
I received a mail from New Zealand asking if I would like to talk with a gentleman by the name of John William Kendall as he was one of the original workers at the Rifleman Pub. Would I! What a chance to get some first hand information about the beginnings of Lesney.
Seems John was taken on in the very first days of the new company as a die caster. John is now in his 70's and lives in Glen Eden, Auckland. Back in the 1940's, John lived in Edmonton, North London about 15 minutes from the Rifleman pub. he seems to remember that the pub was situated in Waggon Lane although it could have been Pound or Chancery Lane.
He remembers making toy cars, trucks, guns and cement mixers as well as electrical fittings for the GEC electrical company. He worked alongside the Allsop brothers, a man called Bob and two other women.
They used two hand operated machines at first and the completed castings were then pulled up through a trap door in the ceiling where the ladies would remove the excess casting sprues and then send them for fettling to remove the sharp bits.
Two of the men would work from 7am to 4pm then one of the brothers and myself would work from 4pm to midnight. We never completed the toys as they were sent away for painting and to have the wheels put on. We finally got a contract with Woolworths and this was the start of the company really.
Our toolmaker, Don Rix , worked in a small room and had a real German Luger pistol. Using it as a pattern he made a toy model from this one and I don't recall much about it except that we all felt very safe at night when it got dark. The Rifleman was in an old area which was very dark and lonely, the toilet was outside and the building was in a bad state of repair. It was like the days of Oliver Twist. I was on £12 to £15 a week and there was a couple of times that we were not paid due to money being short, but we always got paid eventually when they could afford it, they looked after the staff well.
I had a big pot about 3 feet by 2.5 feet full of molten metal. We kept a small one on a gas flame and we used to spoon metal from the big one into the small one to keep it full. Even on a winter's night we only wore singlets and had all the doors open as it was very hot work. We never wore protective clothing and only had one glove which we shared. Sometimes the die didn't close properly and we got hit by bits of molten mazac.
Jack Odell was the brains of the business and a right gentleman. He was always looking for work and always made sure that we got paid. Rodney Smith, known as Ron, was one of the boys always laughing and I didn't have much to do with Les Smith except he was very clever at making the dies. Ron and Jack were always ready to lend a hand and they would do the first cast themselves to make sure all was alright.
John left in 1948 to join the army and on coming back decided it wasn't his cup of tea anymore.
An interesting story and one that tells us that the toy making was just as important as the electrical goods produced. Most of these items would have been contract work and not of their own design until the Luger pistol was produced. John remembers making 1000's of cement mixers.
'Scenes of Lesney Life
The following pictures were kindly supplied by Steve Brown, an ex - pat Kiwi living in Marlow. I am greatly indebted to Steve for these pictures of 'Lesney Life' that I have not seen anywhere before and hope that you will enjoy them as well.
The Waterden Road Building. The first purpose built R & D building.
The Tottenham Road Tool room. Steve says the floodlights at the top right belong to Spurs Football club. What about the period cars parked outside, Vauxhall estate, Triumph, Mini and more - a big 1-75 collection!
Chingford Mount Road Assembly Plant - The home of Yesteryear production
Who would like a browse in those biscuit tins!!
This female employee is attaching labels to an MB 30c Swamp Rat.
Boxes and boxes of them!
Plastic injection machine
Spray bed painter
Thanks Steve, you do not realise how much I appreciate your time, pictures and comments about the company
Some more factory shots in colour from Neil Fraser of the AECSouthall site
Some pictures from Neil Fraser via Paul Carr, which shows the buses that Lesney used to transport staff to and from the factory. What a site for bus collectors! Neil has recently informed me that his site at www.aecsouthall.co.uk is dedicated to these buses and has many on display. I have had a wee browse and the pictures of his AEC Regents are a superb collection. I will definitely be back for a longer browse.
Picture from a website about a walk along the Lea Valley showing the Lesney factory.
Sadly the old Matchbox factory has now been demolished to make way for the new 2012 Olympics site. Here are some photo's taken by 'Downfallen 2008' before it finally hit the ground.
Matchbox Memories Exhibition 2004
(Please note this exhibition is now finished)
This year 2004, Hackney council organised an exhibition to promote business in the area and a main focus was the past Lesney company and the employees who worked for them from around the area.. These are some photographs of the exhibition taken by amongst others, Nick Jones and Gary Galvin. Some of these lucky people got to meet Messrs Smith & Odell and had a wonderful experience there. I'm glad they chose my site name for their exhibition as it confirms to me what we all have, very fond memories of models from a great company.
Gary, his dad ( a former employee) and that Smith boy in the middle!
The 2 boys themselves
I think this is Debbie, Nick's wife
Marcel Bakker chatting
Gary - " I'm telling you it was broken when I bought it and want my money back!!!"